Concluding Lemche’s Prelude to Israel’s Past

I finished Niels Peter Lemche’s Prelude to Israel’s Past.  I have two items: Ugaritic religion, and the date of the Pentateuch.

Much to my surprise, this particular book by Lemche did not talk much about the history of ancient Israel—and so I did not feel like I was rereading Early Israel and Ancient Israel.  Rather, a significant portion of this book was about Ugaritic religion.  Regarding Ugaritic religion, Lemche states on page 192 that, “On earth, gods assisted humans in their struggle against daemons, but they also judged people for their behavior, dispensing divine justice with rewards and succor or with punishment, condemnation, disease, and death.”  Daemons caused disease, and people felt particularly vulnerable at certain times, such as “the transition from night to day (and vice versa) or the passage from inside one’s house to the outside world” (pages 199-200).  To protect themselves from daemons or to counteract their activity, people respected the disease-god Reshef, tried to enlist a god’s help, and used amulets (such as teraphim) “to repel malevolent forces”.  When the amulets didn’t work, they performed more intense household rituals or sought “refuge in a temple’s unique sacred space” (page 200).

For reasons that I do not understand, El was reluctant to interfere in his creation.  He made it good and then entered retirement, but he did not intervene when creation degenerated or was threatened, for he felt that doing so could destroy creation (pages 193-194).  But there were gods who tried to defeat death, which was why they went to the Underworld and emerged victorious.  And yet, even death plays a role in the natural cycle.  Mot was not only death, but it was also a grain god.  Baal was the rain that fell on the earth and died “to revivify” it, thereby producing grain—which was the triumph of Mot.  But rain could not stay dead, for rain had to fall again for there to be life.  Consequently, “Baal must escape so that the process can be created the next year” (page 197).

But Lemche thinks that Ugaritic stories not only contain metaphors (if you will) for the natural cycle, for they wrestle profoundly with the inevitability of death.

The topic of Ugaritic religion brings me to my next item: the dating of the Hebrew Bible.  For Lemche, Israelite monotheism is a key element in this.  Ugaritic and other societies had a bunch of gods that one had to appease—the sun god brought light and life, the storm-god brought rain, etc.  But the religion of the Hebrew Bible stood out in that it demanded the worship of only one God.  Was there anything like that elsewhere in the ancient Near East?  There was Akhenaten of Egypt during the Late Bronze Age, as well as the phenomenon in the ancient Near East of gods absorbing the characteristics of other gods.  Lemche also states (on page 218):

“In Mesopotamia, we find a comparable, though not quite as spectacular tendency toward a practical monotheism: a city-god (Marduk in Babylonia; Ashur in Assyria) attempts to remove other gods from his domain.  Similarly, in West Asia, the Phoenician god Baal (in the form of Baal Shamem—the ‘Baal of Heaven’) almost attains a religious monopoly akin to that of Yahweh’s.”

But Lemche still thinks that the religion of the Hebrew Bible takes monotheism to a new level.  He dismisses a tenth century date for the Yahwist source because the Yahwist affirms that “Yahweh alone is Israel’s God”—a notion of God that “does not agree with any known tenth-century construct—at least insofar as it demands belief in one God alone” (page 221).  Lemche thinks that the time of Josiah is a better time for the origin of the early stage of the Hebrew Bible, since that was when Josiah was imposing his monotheistic program (though Lemche does not explain why Josiah was doing this—where did Josiah’s monotheism come from?).  But that date fails to account for the emphasis in the Hebrew Bible on migrations.

Lemche initially likes the Babylonian exile as the setting for the Hebrew Bible’s origin, for that would be a fitting time for the Jews to construct a “golden age” that could define Israel’s national identity, prevent assimilation, and give Israel hope.  And it would explain the focus on migration, since the exiled Jews wanted to return to Palestine.  But the Hebrew Bible’s history is largely in prose, which was unusual during and before the sixth century B.C.E.  John Van Seters argues that the Jewish historians were influenced in exile by Greek historiography, which was in prose, but Lemche thinks this doesn’t work because Van Seters “relates the history of the Pentateuch to early Greek historians such as Hecataeus of Miletus, who, however, was active at the beginning of the fifth century B.C.E., that is, after the Babylonian exile (538 B.C.E.)” (Page 224).

Lemche settles on the post-exilic period as the most probable setting for origin of the Hebrew Bible: the Greek and “Oriental” worlds “came into close contact” at that time, providing a suitable context for the Jews to learn from Greek historiography.  And, even in Israel’s post-exilic period, migration was an issue, for there were Jews in Babylon and Egypt who had not returned to Palestine.  Lemche asks on page 225 if the Pentateuch served to assure Jews in the Diaspora that they, too, were God’s chosen people, against Jews in Palestine who thought otherwise.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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